The 5 Stages of Grief

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Chapter 3, Holly

Holly grew up in a single-parent home. Her mother, sent from Germany to make her own way at fifteen, had been seduced by a smooth talking Irish fellow of unknown name (to Holly at least) within weeks of her arrival. Holly arrived nine months later.

As far as she knew, that was the first, last, and only man in her mother’s life. Maybe if there had been more, mother would have smiled once in a while. The uncharacteristic thought sped through Holly’s head before she could catch it. As always, she looked about for mother.

Growing up in East Germany in the 70s was a time filled with hardship and hunger for her mother, as Holly was so frequently reminded. Her grandparents, Ihre GroBeltern – her mother constantly corrected her in flawless German – had saved every mark they could spare, money sorely missed, money that could have purchased luxuries such as a telephone, television, or Trabant, to send their little girl off to America, the land of the free, to a better life.

“What’s a Trabant, Mother,” she once asked when she was still young and eminently stupid about her situation.

“It is a car, Holly. A very basic car that we have in the Fatterland. It is the only car we have in the Fatterland. You get into it with your family and you drive to the place you want to go. What do you need all the fanciness for?” Holly remembered stepping back as her mother’s voice grew in intensity, distorting to bitterness.

“Does it get you there better? No! America’s people have been rotted with choices. Too many! It has ruined them, made them believe they are entitled, better than the rest.” Then she stormed to the kitchen-drawer and rummaged, yelling over her shoulder, “Get over here. You must know these things, Holly. Be prepared. Aha!” she said, straightening, filled with righteousness, holding up a permanent marker – the thick-tipped kind you use on the big easels with the flip-paper – and carefully printed Trabant across Holly’s tiny forehead in block letters to remind her what a real car was, a practical car for a bonafide working-person.

The black ink stayed longer than she cared to remember, refusing to come off no matter how hard she’d scrubbed her skin. In fact, she could still see the faint outline of the horrible little car more than a week later – it’s details forever etched in her mind through hours of study, until she could recite the pertinent details back to her mother. The only difference was it was flipped backward, her image staring at her in the mirror when she brushed her teeth and washed her face before bed. Sometimes she would put cream over it and pretend it never happened.

If Ihre GroBeltern sent Holly’s mother over here for a better life, a life of happiness as she claimed, then the joke was on them.

Her mother had settled in Baltimore on account of the large German population – at least that’s what she’d told Holly. And yet, after twenty-one years living in the same city, her entire lifetime, Holly was still waiting to meet a single German that was not her mother. As far as she could see, the two of them comprised the only white family in a broken down neighborhood, in a very rough part of the city. She didn’t have to be travelled to figure that one out.

She once saw her street in the window of Bernie’s, the local electronics store, walking home from grocery-shopping. It stopped her like quicksand. Not that she hadn’t seen it before – Baltimore was constantly on the news at home. It was the only thing her mother would allow on the television, other than her religious preacher shows, and she hadn’t decided which of the two made her more uncomfortable. Holly hadn’t realized she’d been standing outside of the window until the shop-owner had come out and told her to, “Git on her way!” She’d supposed his name was Bernie, though he wore a nametag that read Franklin, which only added to the surrealism of the moment.

“What show is this?” she’d asked him before her fear could take hold.

He stepped forward to see what was playing, his stained and frayed off-white wife-beater failing to prepare her for the odor accompanying him. “Why that’s The Wire. Where you been at, cracker? That show makin’ us famous. Now, nobody wanna come to Baltimore anymo. Sheeit.” He pulled a ball of slime from deep inside and spit it not two fingers from Holly’s foot before rutting back into the store, letting the door slam behind him.

It was on that day Holly realized their lives, her life specifically, was wretched. That if she did not do something to change it she was going to end up like her mother – scarred, not trusting anyone, ever – taking it out on her daughter. That was her catalyst, her spark to change. She would rather die.

The thought, the scene reflecting from the television in the window before her, the worry, the memories – something set off a trigger and she felt her scars flare like Christmas-lights, itching and tingling, each bearing petrified memory of the day, the infraction for which she received them. Mother’s little reminders of right and wrong. She would rub the scars when they flared like this, unconsciously, but her hands were filled with groceries and the concrete sidewalk too filthy to set them down, so she endured. Story of my life.

It had always been severe although Holly had no doubt things had progressed over time. At first it wasn’t physical, more of a mental, emotional thing. Mother losing control, screaming and calling her names, not more than a girl herself, on her own in a strange country with no one, nowhere to turn for help. Holly understood feeling vulnerable, losing her head once in a while. But taking it out on a little girl that didn’t understand the inane version of right and wrong she lived in? That was wrong.

Holly hadn’t known better. Up until school, she’d not witnessed much interaction between other children and their parents – mother’s mostly – as the majority of the kid’s in the neighborhood only had one parent, if any. One day the government came knocking at their door and told her mother that Holly had to go to school and a full eighteen months later than everyone else. That was when she noticed how different things were at home. How her mother seemed more severe, less tender and loving than even the most drugged-up, boozed-out hooker in her news-making neighborhood.

At school, she quickly realized the other kids all knew about her mother. They teased her, called her mother “The Church Lady,” then laughed when she asked what they meant. Holly hadn’t known why for the longest time, until one night during the news, a commercial aired about a late-night television-show and there she was. Correction, he, she remembered with a grin, as it was a man named Dana Carvey impersonating Edith Strict, a.k.a. The Church Lady.

Holly combusted in laughter – her mother, not knowing about the joke or the name calling, shot her a look and stopped it dead. Even at a young age, Holy was abundantly aware that laughter was not part of their home and would never be.

It was about grade three when the punishments began to escalate. By that time, Holly was coming to recognize that the reference to the Church Lady character, though funny, was in reality too kind. Her mother went from name-calling, sending Holly to her room, making her stand in the corner or locking her in the closet, to the infliction of pain. Real pain.

Her mother no longer yelled and screamed her thick German accent barely understandable even to Holly. That was before when the punishments were unplanned, spontaneous, just an outburst of emotions – the good-ole-days. Now when Holly upset her or her mother imagined she had done something wrong, like not using her manners – or even thought something wrong – her mother would get quiet. This was far more frightening than all the yelling and screaming in the world and many a time, at that young age, Holly would wet herself in terror which would only increase the punishment several times over. It had taken many years to exert control over her bladder, though she suspected her mother still tried to loosen it, give herself reason to extend the lesson.

At first it was the strap. An old leather belt she kept in a box tucked away in her closet. Part of a belt anyway, it was about eighteen inches long and an inch and a half wide. “Your no-good father left it on my bedroom floor when he ran for the hills,” she’d once told Holly in the ecstasy of beating her. It was not the buckle end, but the other where the holes were, not that Holly ever got to touch it or inspect it personally. Nevertheless, she knew precisely what it looked like by the impression it would leave upon her skin, the stark contrast of the red, inflamed welt with the pinkish holes clearly defined against her ivory-white skin.

The first few times she received the strap, maybe a half dozen, it was with a haphazard, swing-away “How – many – times – have – I – told – you – not – to…” rhythm, leaving her bared cheeks, lower-back and upper-legs as one enraged red welt and Holly screaming, kicking, squirming, desperate to get away. She quickly learned that all her protests only made it worse, at least for her.

After a while, maybe eight or ten times or so, the strappings started to slow in frenzy and pace. They became more calculated, gaining more precision. One day while changing her clothes, Holly caught her reflection in the mirror. The perfect alignment of the welts created a pattern on her naked flesh from the mid-back to just above the backs of her knees. She couldn’t pull her eyes from it, was mesmerized by the reflection, it reminded her of an exotic native-Indian design. She had received the punishments so many times by then, and every time in the exact pattern, that eventually the markings had become permanent upon her skin, a tattoo of sorts impressed in pain.

She would sit in school the next day, at the back of the classroom so no-one would notice the tears of pain that would stream down her face with every movement. Her lone solace was her school work, where she could lose herself in her mind and imagination. She brought home perfect marks, a stark contrast to the other students sharing her class, the only grades acceptable to her mother. After all, Germans were better and their grades should be a reflection of that. It was because of her high grades that she was overlooked, not noticed in a school full of children in obvious need of help. Holly became the silent sufferer.

That was her life: her mother and school and pain, nothing else.


“The older you are and the more you understand, the more that is expected of you.” This was the only reason needed for her mother to escalate her punishments. The background was established in the canvas of her skin. The belt marks perfectly set and symmetrical, a pattern which took her mother years to attain, all that remained were the finer details.

Holly wondered if it would ever disappear. She doubted it. She cursed herself for not piecing the two together, it was so evident. How could she be so stupid, so blind? She had been so trusting, young. Thinking about it now, after years of therapy, she realized she’d been trying to protect her mother – in a sick sort of way – trying to justify her demented punishments as necessary, although excessive. Nevertheless, even she had to admit that what came next was nothing other than base cruelty. At least that’s what she saw now, looking back, and even that took years of therapy to bring to the surface.

At the time, as a young girl in her tweens, all Holly knew was terror and invisible suffering. It wasn’t until many years later that the Doctor appeared. She hadn’t even known there was such support available. Her mother’s words had always been taken as fact, indisputable in their omnipotence.

“There is no-one to help us but each other, Holly. No-one cares about a couple of immigrants barely able to feed themselves. Look around you.” She would point to the television, the ever-present local news of their city, Baltimore, laid before them in all its glory. The murders, robberies, rapes, every crime imaginable – it made the top five of the worst cities in America to live in every year. Her mother would continue her rant, pointing, her two yellowed fingers clutching the ever-present cigarette between them.

“They were right, back in the Fatterland, all of them. ‘It is all propaganda,’ they said. This country is falling apart and with no law it is simply survival of the fittest. No, Holly, there is no-one to help us, it’s just the two of us against a harsh and cruel world of corruption, filth and lust. We must stick together, you and I. It is my duty as your mother to train you properly, teach you how to listen, make certain you are never taken advantage of by the young wolves that prey on pretty, unsuspecting girls. You’ll see. I will take care of you, make sure you are protected from the predators. America, land of the free – hah!” She would make a spitting sound, a sound of disgust then flick her ash into Holly’s waiting hand.

Ashtrays are dirty and her mother hated the filthy things lying about an otherwise spotless house. Therefore, Holly would watch her mother’s growing ash, anticipating the appropriate time to put her hand out so she could carry the ash to the kitchen sink and wash it down the drain. And all the while cleaning the house and doing her homework until she went to bed. Once in bed, she no longer had to deal with her mother’s ashes. Once in bed, there was no reason for her to get up until morning when the alarm went off, not ever. Once in bed, Holly was free to imagine she was someone else.

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